Advocates say state needs more discretion with youth offenders

By Brooke Kansier


LANSING – Michigan’s tough approach to youth crime is under scrutiny.

It’s the result of a bigger problem, says Kathleen Bailey, a professor and director of the School of Criminal Justice at Grand Valley State University.

The problem boils down to “get tough” policies Michigan and many other states passed in the 1980s and 1990s on juvenile crime, she said. Those laws created policies like “adult time for adult crime,” which encouraged charging youth as adults ¬– often with stricter sentencing and more jail time – in the wake of what many people feared was a massive juvenile crime wave.

“What happened is you got these unforgiving sentences and policies against youth offenders that were kind of built by a lie – the Armageddon never came,” Bailey said.

The problem is the slew of ramifications the policies caused.

Regulations included truth in sentencing, strict sentencing guidelines and changes that eased the process of charging youth as adults by removing a judge’s discretion and giving prosecutors power to try any child of any age in adult courts.

“It takes that discretion away from the juvenile court to determine whether that individual can be rehabilitated or not in that system,” said Jennifer Pilette, a former referee for the Wayne County Juvenile Court in Detroit. Pilette is now an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School and the Wayne State University Law School.

Other issues revolve around a decision to automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults –today, Michigan is one of only nine states that do so.

“They can’t buy tobacco, they can’t do things that are adult-like, but they charge them adult-like,” said Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, who spent 30 years as a defense lawyer. “Michigan is a leader in some things, and a follower in others.”


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